Joshua McWilliam is a past student and is currently working on a novel called “Mr Permaculture”. This article is an excerpt from his book.
“Move them a stack at a time, then you won’t have to use energy that you need later on. Good job.” Said my teacher from behind me. A teacher I never thought I would get to experience. Teachers in High School and College didn’t necessarily fit the criteria of human. Mr. Permaculture was real. He was true. The words he spoke made sense. Never leaving room for questions, which I found to be a good thing, I ask too many questions as it is.
I picked up the stack of grass, stacked, as plates would be. Carrying down the hill I looked up at the sky. My body took over as I placed the grass down through physical memory of the place I put them last.
The clouds were so beautiful that day. Round, fluffy and cooling. They rolled past the sun in a strange way, a way I never paid attention to before. The shapes they could form were beautiful and the transition they made around the sun was almost unnatural.
“Uh, boss?” I heard a student say from behind me. “What happens if we mess up and the swale isn’t level?” Looking suspicious of the reaction he may get, my fellow student leaned against his shovel, taking all the responsibility off the dirt.
A swale is like a trench. A trench that would hold, trap, and store all runoff water from snow, rain, and everyday life. Filling such “trenches” with rocks and other solids would create a pathway for harvesting your garden around it. Giving it more than one use. Being level is one of the most important parts of building a swale. We felt for him.
“Then we will try again.” He said as a smile rose over his face. “The beauty of this job is that we are working with something that can be fixed and fixed to your hearts content. Let’s just fill it back up half way and pack it down a bit.” He said as he grabbed a shovel and began to teach us about how mistakes are opportunities for growth and experience. It’s not a mistake if it can be fixed. I had never looked at things like that before. The fact that you can’t really “delete” anything in the real world; just goes to show us we all have a chance at our dreams. If it doesn’t work the first time, try again, but it will never be your last time.
2 months ago…
Permaculture, as I knew it, was a systematical way of making the environment around us sustainable. I wasn’t far off from the truth when I came to this realization too. It really is just that.
I was looking around on Google for a fair amount of time trying to find my place in the world. By taking my beliefs, responsibilities, and my interests, I couldn’t find anything that sounded interesting. Sitting around the kitchen table one night brought about the conversation of Permaculture. Not knowing a thing about it, but feeling intrigued, I asked for more.
My friend went on to educate me on the very topic. Gardening was what I had gotten from the introduction of this new concept. Either way, I was instantly excited about learning more.
Contacting the teacher for an introductory course that was not only affordable, but also very unique. He had a soft voice, a welcoming voice; I took the chance to speak to the nice person.
“It is one payment of 190 dollars and this is the address,” The man said as I wrote down all of my instructions. I was officially starting class in a month.
Going to work the next day I came to realize that the course takes weekends, and work also needed me for weekends. I had a good retail job, no real complaints, and I was comfortable. But with this new opportunity I had to make a choice. I walked in and put in my notice. It was easier than I had thought. My bosses were very happy for me and excited about my decision, leaving me the room to become comfortable and move forward. This was it. My life was about to change.
Excited as I was I ran home and began to make charts and lists about how I can lessen my footprint on the planet. Composting, water conservation, recycling, the list went on. Giving the people around me the knowledge of what I was going to be doing was more difficult than I thought. “Hippy crap,” some said, and others said things like, “Mumbo Jumbo,” and my all-time favorite, “It’ll never make a difference.” Hearing all of these things made me realize that I have to prove myself in order to have an audience. Prove myself, to myself, and learn for my own personal gain. Then, moving on to help others better understand the field.
I began to dream about Permaculture, write about Permaculture, and think of nothing but Permaculture. Permaculture. Permaculture. Permaculture.
The introductory class was held on a rainy day in a fantastic organic shop. My teacher was new at this class and had only taught a few of them. At first, I thought to myself, ‘if this guy can do it, I can do it.’ As he continued to introduce us to a new and simple concept I began to realize that this guy had passion, something I didn’t quite have yet. He spoke with agility as other classmates began to cover him in questions. Not only did he answer all of them, but he constructed the entire course around the questions we had. Brilliant!
The people in my class were very taken with each other, taken with him, and they felt all right about me too. Bonus. I got along with the people in my class, we talked to each other, we shared viewpoints; it was perfect. Not ever had I been in a classroom with people that all had similar goals and interests.
Information had flown at us in light speed, but it was okay, we seemed to soak every drop into our newly framed brains. He made it possible for us to listen and to learn by using real experiences and existential knowledge of nature. He had back up, he had education, and he had a passion to change the world. Mushrooms, trees, air, chemicals, organics, industrialization, media, water, soil, compost, carbon, nitrogen, and mycelium was taught and advised within only four hours.
I ate my lunch with my classmates. We talked about things like teamwork and organizations in which we could see each other and work together to get our new knowledge to others. Excited to start the next session we ate up as fast as we could, sat back in our seats and looked up at him.
He had told us a story about the ‘African Clap’. It was so intriguing it didn’t take long to follow along. As we would enter the room we noticed him rub his hands together as if he were cold. He did this so that we would do the same. We followed him by rubbing our hands together in unison. He would count to three and we would clap. This not only brought us together as a team, but it helped us focus on the same wavelength as him, and each other. It was also like the bell at the end of class in little school, only without the annoying sound. This was something we all had to work for. It was brilliant. And it worked.
The whole weekend was filled with hands-on learning and concepts that were easy to understand. As he would describe it, he was taking knowledge that we already had, and he was just going to help us reframe it in a way that it made sense. It did make sense, every last bit of it. The reasons we should be storing water, how to store it, and what we would later use it for. Trees have a large and phenomenal root system below them. They are able to store gallons upon gallons of water while using it as many times as possible; to feed into itself for life, and to make the soil in which it lives thrive with life and energy. They create shade, housing, and pretty much anything else we could ever need, could come from a tree.
My interest was on Permaculture the whole time. But my main priority was to learn more about trees. They are amazing. Without them, we would not be.
Days later I was invited to an open house at another instructor’s house. I took the opportunity with open arms. It was a good thing that I did too. I was signing up for the certificate course that would span over 3 months. Meeting all of these new people was different for me. I had never been in the know of such organizations. I mean, Greenpeace and Peta are organizations but this was different. Permaculture is empowering and independent. Permaculture gets its point across without having to use force to implicate.
This is what brought me to Mr. Permaculture. I had made a promise to commit to this subject, and I did just that. I become a Permaculturist over night and it took my attention by storm. I devoted my weekends to this concept and volunteered my energy to help in the placement of these gardens. Food Forests is what he called them. As a group in the Permaculture organization, we would lend our hands in the installation of Food Forests all over the city, called Permablitz’. An eight hour make over to your back or front lawn, or both, taking out your grass and placing in healthy soil and water storage for the consistent growth of a self-sustaining garden.
After dazing into the sky (which I found myself doing quite often lately), caused me to look back at the land. Watching over twenty people work together for a common goal was inspiring beyond my imagination. Laughter and conversation radiated through the neighborhood as we worked our butts off. Digging, digging and more digging. Watering, measurement, fertilizing, measurement, planting, measurement, and then more watering.
The whole process became innate after every time we did a Permablitz. The results were unbelievable. Brand new land cover is what it became. Unrecognizable as the homeowners would watch the progress, realizing this was something they should have done a long time ago.
The more I was involved in a lawn transformation the more I wanted my own lawn to have this treatment. We were told that after every 3 Permablitz that we volunteered we would be able to get the labor volunteered unto your own lawn. Completing 3 of them was now my goal. It was easy since there was a constant need for the help, and new designers to come in and make a map.
This is what we did in this course. We learned to be designers in the Permaculture community, to pass this on as far as it could go. That is what we did.
The feeling of your hands in the soil moving around is one of the most natural ways of connecting with the earth. Soil, I once thought was indestructible, but it is not. If we don’t create a way to bring moisture back into our soil, it becomes sand, it becomes clay, it becomes desert. Looking into this new plateau of earth and running the soil through my hands, realizing its darkness and temperature was very appealing. The smell it had was so unique every time that it’s able to bring your senses to a front. Every concern we have with the world can all be realized with the care of soil.
We were able to do this while we worked on these Forests, to just sit and appreciate the beauty of the earth around us. We had the control of where this soil was placed and what its path and reasoning were to be. Placing soil around a tree to create a blanket of life and health was the most uplifting feeling. Placing yourself in the trees shoes and figuring out what it needs most was everything I had needed. To be able to connect with something so much older than me, so much more experienced than me, so much more majestic than me. I was simply just another animal to this tree, just another living creature using it in some way.
I felt love for the trees and plants that we were lucky enough to get to know, feel, touch, and help. They deserved as much respect as I did, they deserved as good of a life as I did.
“Everyone gather round,” Mr. Permaculture said as he held up an infant tree. “This is the cancer inside of trees.” He pointed out on a sliced piece of branch this reddish black color combination inside the arm of the tree. Rather than being moist, green, brown and full of life, it was black and dying.
“Is there anything we can do?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” He replied. “This tree was poorly pruned. Cutting the branch in this way caused other organisms to get through, much like we get when we get sick, to slowly take over the insides of the tree, making it so the tree wilts. It seems to have spread too far now.” As he took the tree respectfully to a composting area he would explain that it’s not useless, or really dead. We could simply use this plant to help with the breaking down of other organic material and feed it into the soil. “One day this tree will become part of another tree, help in the growth of another tree and feed energy to the soil surrounding it.”
The fact that organic material can break down and become soil made my head spin for the longest time. I couldn’t fathom things being able to do that. After a while, hearing Mr. Permaculture talk about it and teach us, it made it obvious and necessary how it worked. It was simple.
Everything is made up of organic material, and everything breaks down to become something else within the cycle of life. The grass grows so the cow can eat it. The cow deposits the remains of the grass in a smelly pile on top of soil. The deposit now makes it so something else can grow within its energy. A tree grows from the fertilization of this deposit and sprouts fruit. The fruit is picked by humans or other animals then eaten. We deposit the biodegraded material into the water and surrounding land. This now travels through the soil and water across the land and back into a new system.
Mr. Permaculture always made sure we were able to come up with new ways of explaining things and their meaning. He taught us that the saying “if you take something, give something back,” this was in fact, very true. If you take an apple off the tree, throw the core back into the soil so the nutrients can be used again. If someone helps you, help them too.
Given the opportunity, we were traveling to a farm, a farm that we would study and get to know personally to come up with a design. Driving up to the farm was beautiful in the morning. The sky was motivating and captivating, changing from orange to purple to blue while we pulled into the driveway. The farm was too big to see as a whole. It had its own North and South within the perimeter. It would have been intimidating had it not been beautiful and eye opening.
Animals were seen from left and right, as the students all stayed quiet. Mr. Permaculture took us around the property as he explained and pointed out the things you wouldn’t normally see. Hillsides that were diminishing because of water erosion and becoming inhospitable for any plants to grow. The sedimentary layers of old soil and new soil within the eroded edges of the earth were amazing. The changes in climate and nutrition over the duration of the past was causing me to stare at the very visible proof right before our eyes.
Over lunch I sat and listened to my fellow classmates and the teachers discuss things in, in-depth, conversations. While I made this my white noise, I stared up into the sky. Thanking whatever is up there for this opportunity, and selflessly hoping that everyone could experience this feeling of empowerment between you and the earth. Everything was more beautiful and more colorful as my appreciation grew.
I told myself, ‘you can make a difference, one positive act at a time.’